Two Premieres at City Ballet: Serious Duets, Unserious Spoof

Why did the just-ended spring seasons of American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet seem like marathons to be endured, not opportunities to be enjoyed? The inescapable answer is that they’re both in trouble. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, each company had its own brand of problem: A.B.T. had an exhausted repertory, was musically deficient and depended on stars; City Ballet hadn’t been able to replace the great dancers from Balanchine’s day with equivalent dancers, and his ballets were beginning to fray. Today, the companies seem to be converging in their difficulties. A.B.T. has improved musically, and is trying to infuse quality into the repertory (with, among other things, more Balanchine), but despite all its efforts, can’t populate the war-horses it depends on to fill up the Met with bona fide stars. Whereas City Ballet has reduced Balanchine’s share of the repertory (only 21 of the season’s 46 works were his, down from last season’s 24 out of 47), has still not fully restored its musical standards, and also shows an alarming lack of major dancers. No wonder box office has been a problem!

A.B.T. shot its bolt the first week of the season with its interesting Tharp-Taylor-Morris bill. There was only one new work to come, and unfortunately it came. The pre-season fanfare was mostly about this piece, David Parsons’ Pied Piper, “the first project developed with funding from the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund.” Well, their heart was in the right place. David Parsons (he was a major Paul Taylor dancer, then went on to found a successful company of his own) proves to be more interested in stagecraft than in dancecraft. Pied Piper is full of scenic effects, of lighting effects, of magical effects, of literary effects, but not of dance effects-the dance vocabulary is minimal, and what there is is derivative, particularly the echoes of Prodigal Son, down to the Piper’s costume. There are swirling capes and magic wands and scurrying mice and long-snouted rats and carousing, greedy medieval burghers, and moons and stars and sunrises-ballet goes to the Cirque du Soleil-and in the middle of it all, first-cast, the angelic Angel Corella. He whirls, he leaps, he staggers, he even suffers-after the town betrays him, his hand flies up to his head. Quick, get the Advil! But nothing this entrancing young man can do masks the shallowness and pretentiousness of the work itself. Buckets of energy (and money) have been poured down the drain.

Everything else at the Met was all too predictable. Instead of deciding who looks best in what role, A.B.T. gives each of its leading dancers a crack at everything. Eight Swan Lakes, eight different lead couples. With casting like this, how can a dancer grow into a part? Does the company really believe that these dancers are all equally equipped for these roles, or is it pacifying them, or can’t it make up its mind and so gives everyone an equal opportunity? Alas, ballet isn’t an equal-opportunity profession.

I saw Ashley Tuttle, a lovely dancer who, despite her honest and heartfelt acting and exquisite, liquid phrasing, doesn’t really have the amplitude for Odette/Odile. There was also a lot to enjoy in Gillian Murphy’s much-anticipated debut, primarily her regal bearing and her brilliant technique (and not only when whipping off the famous fouettés). But as yet she has no idea of what the ballet as a whole is about, which isn’t surprising in a version of Swan Lake whose chief interest seems to lie in the double-casting of the villainous Rothbart. Choreographer Kevin McKenzie apparently believes that when one of the Rothbarts is replaced by the other in a puff of smoke, a large dramatic point has been made. Ballet as special effects.

There were also eight Giselles, but only seven ballerinas: Julie Kent got two shots. With her long limbs and pleasing manner, she’s an attractive peasant girl, and she has the technique for the Wilis act. But she just isn’t very interesting-maybe she’s too careful. She and her partner, the stalwart Jose Manuel Carreño, were innocent and gentle young lovers for whom a kiss was a daring gesture. Whereas Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky (her offstage husband) were in the grip of passion-a rather original approach to Giselle. Ms. Dvorovenko, beautifully trained (in Kiev), has mastery and confidence-or to put it another way, she’s assertive and she’s pleased with herself. She was at her best in Act II, which shows off her large, airy jumps, and in which even she can’t find many opportunities to flirt with the audience.

As for the rest of the season’s repertory, let’s draw a discreet veil over the all-Tchaikovsky program, the Cinderellas, the Eugene Onegins, the Don Q.’s. May they rest in peace.

The real interest at A.B.T. lies in the male contingent and the soloists-the latter an extraordinarily strong group. What other company could field such diverse yet uniformly satisfying performers in the Swan Lake Pas de Trois and Giselle’s “Peasant Pas de Deux”? Certainly not City Ballet, where the soloist level of performance is woeful, particularly among the women; only two of them-Alexandra Ansanelli and Janie Taylor-have any real promise. Proof came in the casting of two major ballets. Divertimento No. 15 is a work that demands five ballerinas. There were times when Balanchine decided he couldn’t field a strong enough group of girls and replaced the ballet at the last minute. This season we had Miranda Weese-as capable and bland as ever-in the central role, and Ms. Taylor and three girls from the corps de ballet in the other ballerina roles. This is spectacular undercasting. Everyone danced efficiently, even pleasingly, but these young girls just don’t know what the ballet is about, and no one’s showing them.

The soloist problem was equally evident in Robbins’ The Four Seasons. Like most of the Robbins repertory, this piece is being carefully looked after, but the key role-the girl in “Spring,” the role that made Kyra Nichols a star-has been given to Pascale van Kipnis. Watching her with the Nichols performance etched in one’s memory was a painful experience: every inflection dulled, every subtlety absent. Clearly no one got Kyra Nichols to coach Ms. van Kipnis, and no one ever needed coaching more. The feeling persists-indeed, grows-that at City Ballet, it’s more or less sink or swim; your talent is spotted and you’re sent out there to do it on your own. This can work for an independent and centered talent like Jennie Somogyi-all she needs is to be thrown onstage more often-but these other girls need all the help they can get.

And now there’s a new young talent whom everyone’s suddenly watching-Carla Körbes, a corps girl from Brazil. She stood out among the others in Divertimento with her combination of lyricism and natural authority. In a new Richard Tanner piece, Soirée, she was outstanding. (The ballet, to charming music by Nino Rota, is a pleasant surprise with its small corps and its three young couples, each with its own ingenious duet. Mr. Tanner, also using Janie Taylor and the technically impressive Ashley Bouder, here is working in Robbins’ footsteps, picking the cream of the young crop and showing it off to its, and his, advantage.) Then in the final week of the season, in response to the usual spate of end-of-spring injuries, Ms. Körbes was given the plum role of Titania in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The list of great Titanias is a formidable challenge-Diana Adams, Suzanne Farrell, Maria Calegari, Darci Kistler, Maria Kowroski, etc.-and this girl has such natural assurance and grace that she may well reach their level. I saw her first performance, when she stepped in for an injured Ms. Kistler, and although I was impressed, I would rather she’d been dancing Helena or Hermia; the lovesick couples are now played so broadly that all the lyricism, the poignancy, of their scenes is dissipated. The girls are just a pair of shrews, and the boys a couple of dolts. I don’t think this is what Shakespeare-or Balanchine-had in mind.

City Ballet is stuck with all the new ballets it keeps commissioning. They get second seasons, third seasons, and does anyone really want to see them? Who can even keep them straight? There were entire weeks this spring when there wasn’t a program one could imagine sitting through. Can an occasional wonderful performance-Maria Kowroski in Monumentum Pro Gesualdo, the group effort in Dances at a Gathering-hold the audience? Young talents like Ms. Körbes and Ms. Bouder pour into the company, but these kids are in a race against time. City Ballet has to develop choreographers of stature and a new approach to coaching before everything we value about it fades away and, in the great tradition of the Cheshire Cat, there’s nothing left but Peter Martins’ smile.